From the Philadelphia
threat of violent acts
A group has taken responsibility for a fire that gutted a Pa. Forest Service
lab. Forest management is an issue.
By Tom Avril
Inquirer Staff Writer
IRVINE, Pa. - For
the employees at the U.S. Forest Service lab here, the scariest moment
might not have been when their building went up in flames before dawn.
That occurred a few
weeks later, when a radical environmental group took credit for the fire
with an anonymous "communique" posted on the Internet.
life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary,
we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice,"
said the statement, from a group called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).
Some experts on extremist
groups say those words, posted in September, signal a new, more violent
approach by "ecoterrorists."
More commonly known
for burning down vacant ski lodges and suburban McMansions and "spiking"
trees to prevent logging, some of the activists now seem to be saying
they'll hurt people as well.
"I think it is
indisputable that many eco-radicals in this country have taken a turn
towards violence," said Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report,
a quarterly journal about extremist groups published by the Southern Poverty
It's the type of activity
that draws attention in a country already in a state of heightened alert.
In February, a top FBI official told a congressional subcommittee that
the Earth Liberation Front and a related group, the Animal Liberation
Front, were the nation's most active domestic terrorist groups, though
not the most dangerous ones.
Together, the two
groups have claimed responsibility for more than 600 arsons and other
crimes since 1996, causing more than $43 million in damage, said James
F. Jarboe, chief of the FBI's domestic terrorism section.
Neither group has
injured anyone. And on its Web site, the Earth Liberation Front vigorously
rejects the term ecoterrorism and says its rules prevent the harming of
human life. If anyone were to be hurt, the action would, by definition,
not be sanctioned by ELF, the group says.
Either way, employees
at the Forest Service lab here in northwestern Pennsylvania's Allegheny
National Forest have been jittery lately.
They have moved their
work to an undisclosed location nearby while the old lab, which suffered
$700,000 in damage to the roof and the interior, is rebuilt and new security
measures are developed.
Susan Stout, the lab's
head of research, still has trouble talking about the Aug. 11 fire.
Stout was called at
4:50 a.m. by the lab's security service and immediately drove with her
husband to the building where she had worked for 21 years.
The fire was orange
against the black sky as firefighters rushed to bring the blaze under
"I don't have
words to describe the sense of terrible loss," Stout said. "No
one should ever have to experience watching a place that's that important
to them burn down."
If the group's communique
is to be believed, it may happen again. In the statement, the activists
vowed to burn the building again if it is rebuilt.
The fire is the latest
in a string of Earth Liberation Front incidents dating to the mid-1990s.
All have been carried
out anonymously, and, according to the group's materials, independently
of each other. It's a pattern of activism known as "leaderless resistance"
and is said to draw inspiration from The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey's
1975 novel about "environmental warriors."
Based on the group's
initials, its members sometimes refer to themselves as "elves."
There is no formal membership; anyone who sets a fire or commits some
other crime within the group's guidelines can claim to be a member.
The group's Web site
includes tips on how to set fires with electric timers, and how to respond
when federal agents come knocking.
Perhaps ELF's most
notorious act came in 1998, with the burning of several buildings and
chairlifts at the Vail, Colo., ski resort.
Other attacks have
been directed at the trappings of suburban sprawl: cement trucks, houses
in new subdivisions, and sport-utility vehicles.
To some, the most
recent target, a Forest Service lab, may seem misguided. After all, the
researchers study environmental issues such as how trees grow and the
ability of forests to store "greenhouse" gases.
groups have plenty of gripes about the agency, contending that its chief
goal is to grow trees so loggers can cut them down.
They criticize the
agency for using herbicides and other techniques to promote growth of
the commercially desirable black cherry tree, instead of restoring the
forest to its naturally diverse state, with large numbers of American
beech and striped maple.
The Allegheny Defense
Project, an area environmental group, has sued the agency to restrict
logging in the forest. But Jim Kleissler, the group's Forest Watch director,
said it does not support the arson.
it," Kleissler said. "We're opposed to the destruction of public
property, whether it's done through arson or clear-cutting."
Whether she is attacked
with lawsuits or fire, researcher Stout contends such criticism is off-target.
Black cherry would
be taking over much of the forest anyway, she said, because the state's
out-of-control deer population tends to feed on other species but leaves
black cherry alone. She also questioned the wisdom of encouraging the
growth of beech trees, as they are vulnerable to disease.
The key, she said,
is to manage the forest "sustainably," and the agency is charged
with doing so for a variety of constituents, including hikers, hunters,
wildlife and loggers.
In their communique,
the arsonists didn't see things that way:
continue to ignore and mislead the public, at the bidding of their corporate
masters, leaving us with no alternative to underground direct action...
. If they persist in their crimes against life, they will be met with
a day of the fire, some of Stout's team of six scientists were out in
the field again.
Not that it made her
feel any safer.
"We are having
to learn, and our families are having to learn, to deal with the fact
that somebody has chosen to identify us as targets for personal violence,"
she said. "We have had to think differently about how we conduct